Deanna Cleaveland recalls the answering machine set up in a spare bedroom of the Tacoma home she shared with husband, Bob.
The device was called a “Record-a-Call.” In 1986, it was fancy technology. The phone line that fed into it “would ring at all hours of the night and day,” Deanna remembers.
The answering machine marked the humble beginnings of Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska. Bob Cleaveland, remembered this week as a giant of a man with a heart to match, was helping to answer the calls way back when.
Bob passed away on Valentine’s Day at the age of 73 after complications from surgery. With a background in insurance, Cleaveland was one of the local Make-A-Wish branch’s three co-founders, helping to create the affiliate back when granting wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions was a fledgling endeavor, not the work of well-known international charity.
It’s an accomplishment he deserves to be remembered for.
The work of Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska continues today, in many ways reflective of the personal vision and passion that Bob and fellow co-founders Greg Wong and Penni Maples started out with. Though the operation has grown substantially over the last 30-plus years, Bob’s influence stll is evident, according to the organization’s CEO Barry McConnell.
“It just was personal for Bob,” McConnell said this week. “It was just an incredible labor of love.”
In that first year, operating out of the Cleaveland’s home, the local Make-A-Wish branch granted six wishes to children. It was a grassroots operation, powered entirely by the co-founders’ local fundraising efforts, volunteer wrangling and commitment to the cause.
“It was a really mom-and-pop, grassroots organization, but they were doing amazing things — truly accomplishing a lot for these families,” McConnell says. “They were making it up as they go.”
Deanna remembers the first wish her husband of nearly 50 years helped grant through the local Make-A-Wish chapter. It was to a little girl who wanted to visit Disneyland. She also recalls Armando, a young boy who dreamed of meeting Hulk Hogan and who got the chance at an event at the Tacoma Dome.
“(Bob) was a big man, physically imposing, and I always said he had to be big because he gave away a lot of himself,” Deanna Cleaveland says of her husband, who went on to serve on the National Make-A-Wish board. “He had a heart that just had a passion for kids. Something spoke to him about these children.”
This year, according to McConnell, Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska expects to grant nearly 360 wishes. Soon, McConnell believes the local chapter will be able to grant wishes for 425 children and families a year — an achievement McConnell says will mean “granting a wish for every eligible child” in the region.
It’s a milestone that Cleaveland — who, along with Wong and Maples, handed off the day-to-day operations of Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska in the early 1990s as the effort grew and blossomed — helped lay the groundwork for.
The impact Make-A-Wish can make for local children and families faced with what, for most, are unthinkable circumstances is something I know too much about. As I’ve written in the past, not long before his second birthday our son, August, was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating neurological condition called Alexander Disease. There is no cure, and the prognosis is bleak.
In late 2016, just before Christmas, August got to make his wish. He loves few things in this world more than Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” and dreamed of meeting the princesses in person.
So early on a Sunday morning, we boarded a flight for Santa Ana and headed for Disneyland. Not only did August get a chance to meet Anna and Elsa and spend a few special moments reading and laughing with the characters he adores, for five days the weight that had was placed on our family by a diagnosis none of us could have ever been prepared for was momentarily lifted.
It remains — and will always remain — one of my family’s most cherished memories. Looking back at pictures still fills me with love and calm contentment.
Whatever happens, our Make-A-Wish trip is something we’ll always have. The wry smile on August’s face as he met Anna and Elsa, for us, will last forever.
That’s the point, of course.
Bob Cleaveland saw the power in that before most.
“What we’ve lost is a very big heart,” Deanna Cleaveland says of her husband’s passing.
We certainly have.
Thankfully, through Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska, part of Bob Cleaveland’s heart lives on.